Just a few weeks ago the Montreal Canadiens were surfing a wave of goodwill and enthusiasm from fans the likes of which the team had not seen in a long time. In the eyes of many, however, the past week has been a total wipeout.
Global News asked three different marketing experts about the Canadiens’ controversial decision to pick 18-year-old Logan Mailloux in the NHL draft, and the damage it has done to the team’s brand.
“The Canadiens brand is one of the most storied in all of sports,” said Robert Soroka, a marketing professor at Concordia University. “However, it’s not impenetrable.”
He called the decision to take Mailloux “dangerous.”
The Ontario-born prospect was convicted and fined in Sweden for taking and sharing photos of a sexual nature without the young woman’s consent, and asked not to be selected.
“When you take a misstep like the Canadiens did, it can compromise the integrity of the equity of that brand,” Soroka said.
Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University and former commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League, said in making the pick, the Canadiens failed to recognize the diversity of their fanbase.
“We have to really be aware of all the communities that we serve and that to slight any one of them is in some ways to slight all of them,” said Burton.
David Soberman, a marketing professor at the University of Toronto and a Canadian National Chair in Strategic Marketing, said the controversy underlines how important it is for companies to be conscious of their positions on important issues.
“Things like gender, harassment, sexual discrimination, racism — these things are like hot potatoes. As an organization, what you need to do is err on the side of being safe and not take risks,” Soberman said.
He sees the move to take Mailloux having an effect on Canadiens’ merchandise sales.
“This is the sort of thing that makes people think twice,” he said. “Sales of merchandise go directly to your bottom line. Wins indirectly do, but merchandise sales are very important.”
After some sponsors including financial giant Desjardins and iconic chicken chain Saint-Hubert started questioning their partnerships with the team, owner Geoff Molson released an apology. He acknowledged management did not properly assess the damage to Mailloux’s victim and others in her situation.
“That probably assuaged a lot of concern, and it was a big reason why a company like Saint-Hubert would come back into the fold,” said Soroka.
On Thursday Saint-Hubert told Global News it is confident the team will act on its promise to become a key actor in raising awareness against the behaviour Mailloux engaged in.
“After discussions with the Montreal Canadiens over the past few days, Groupe St-Hubert will continue its longstanding association with the club,” Saint-Hubert’s Josée Vaillancourt said in an email.
Desjardins also accepted the owner’s words.
“We are satisfied by the sincerity of the comments expressed by Geoff Molson,” Desjardins spokesperson Valerie Lamarre told Global News.
The experts pointed to Molson’s commitment to using the team’s platforms to be a positive voice on the issue.
“It will be really interesting to see whether they keep their word, whether they really are going to support him and bring him through awareness training,” said Burton.
He said the Canadiens will need to deal with the issue “in a sophisticated way” and honour their commitments if they expect angered fans to stay loyal to the team.
“I think different people punish brands in different ways, but I think in sports at least, what we’ve seen historically is people tend to come back,” he said.
Soroka said he plans to use the Canadiens’ mistake as a lesson with his marketing students.
“I can tell you that this will be in my classroom as of the fall, it will be in the first week of the fall session, absolutely,” he said.